Unexpected, striking and immediate – this unification of the natural and built worlds characterizes the forty-foot tall glass terrarium that Hoerr Schaudt designed as the centerpiece to Perkins+Will’s new entry pavilion for the Rush University Hospital in Chicago. Featuring native woodland plantings that emphasize seasonal change, the terrarium satiates the acute hunger for nature that is common among hospital patients.

2 rooftop grass skylight rush hospital hoerrschaudt

The size and sculptural drama of the elliptical glass cone – penetrating skyward in the atrium then surfacing though a green roof overhead – sets it apart from classic terrariums. Typically sealed, most traditional terrariums provide a controlled environment for the plants that grow inside. The terrarium at Rush, however, has an unglazed circular opening at its top that forms a connection with the outdoor environment thereby exposing its horticultural inhabitants to the conditions that any unhindered outdoor space experiences. For this reason, the reverse terrarium’ becomes a window, of sorts, allowing hospital residents a brief look into the outside world.

3 A terrarium inside rush hospital hoerrschaudt
3 B terrarium above rush hospital hoerrschaudt

Hoerr Schaudt planted shade-tolerant mosses, ferns, bulbs, and perennials in a Hydrotech, lightweight soil mixture. For even moisture distribution, spray nozzles and bubblers irrigate the plantings with water reclaimed from roof runoff. The desire for four-season appeal prompted the selection of deciduous flowering Serviceberry trees, which were inserted through the terrarium’s one three-by-six-foot door. Upper stories around the roof garden precluded the use of a crane to hoist trees in from above.

4 rooftop walking rush hospital hoerrschaudt

This capsule woodland promises no instant cures, but its beauty is a palliative that any nurse or doctor will endorse.